It's Not the Plastic That's Bad: It's How We Use It

It's Not the Plastic That's Bad: It's How We Use It

Cambria Bold
Mar 18, 2011

With concerns about leaching BPA, toxic toys, and incredibly harmful effects on nature and the environment, plastic is not a popular material around here. (One of our writers is even doing a No New Plastic Challenge.) So it was interesting to read the following op-ed piece in The New York Times arguing that plastic in and of itself actually has a lot of green qualities (light, easy to ship, durable); it's how we use it that's the real problem.

The gist of the article is basically this:

Shunning plastic may seem key to the ethic of living lightly, but the environmental reality is more complex... In other words, plastics aren't necessarily bad for the environment; it's the way we tend to make and use them that's the problem.

It's certainly easy to forget that plastic was originally hailed for its potential to reduce humankind's heavy environmental footprint:

The earliest plastics were invented as substitutes for dwindling supplies of natural materials like ivory or tortoiseshell. When the American John Wesley Hyatt patented celluloid in 1869, his company pledged that the new manmade material, used in jewelry, combs, buttons and other items, would bring "respite" to the elephant and tortoise because it would "no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer."

The article claims that nearly half of the 600 billion pounds of plastics produced each year go into single-use products, some of which have value (disposable syringes, for example, which have been a great ally in preventing the spread of infectious diseases), but most of those disposable products are essentially "prefab litter"— bags, drinking straws, packaging and lighters. What we should begin to realize is that plastic has inherent green qualities: it takes less energy to produce and transport than many other materials, and it makes green technology—like solar panels, lighter cars, and planes that burn less fuel—possible. As the Times says, "these 'unnatural' synthetics, intelligently deployed, could turn out be nature's best ally."

And there's another cost. Pouring so much plastic into disposable conveniences has helped to diminish our view of a family of materials we once held in high esteem. Plastic has become synonymous with cheap and worthless, when in fact those chains of hydrocarbons ought to be regarded as among the most valuable substances on the planet. If we understood plastic's true worth, we would stop wasting it on trivial throwaways and take better advantage of what this versatile material can do for us.

Read It: Plastic: Too Good To Throw Away, at The New York Times

(Image: Tehran Times)

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